Category Archives: life, the universe and everything else

Cose che mi vengono in mente e non stanno bene in nessuna categoria, ma in qualche modo c’entrano

Photo: Greg Goebel

Can politics be collaborative?

In Edgeryders, we study  and practice collaboration, especially online. Time and again, we find it the most powerful force that people with next to no wealth and no power, like us, can evoke. We are getting good at it, though much work remains. Proof: we are a mutant company with no office, no investors, no business plan. We have nothing but each other – a tiny core of founders, and the Edgeryders community. And yet we are out there, with top-notch global organizations among our clients, and we are growing. 2016 has been a good year for us – we’ll be blogging about this soon.

2016 has also been a year of uncertainty and discontent in world politics. Many people dear to us are sad, angry or scared. Almost no one seems satisfied about their politics and their leaders. That goes both for the losing camp and the winning one. We consider this contrast, and wonder. As a culture, we are getting better at working together in diversity. Why does this not translate into more constructive politics?

As we looked into this, we realized that our default frame for politics is combat. There are opponents and allies. Its protagonists focus on winning. This is understandable but useless, except maybe as a spectator sport. What happens if we drop this frame and adopt a collaboration frame instead? What would happen if a political entity were run like a collaborative project? What would happen if lawmaking worked like Wikipedia? What if policy happened like the next release of Apache or Ubuntu?

This:

  1. Enabling as core mission. A state, or city, or region, exists only to enable the people who live there to do what they want to do. It does not need a vision, because people have their own. It only needs to enable the largest possible outcome space for the largest number of people. In return, it gets compliance and tax revenue. This would be the only focus of collaborative politics. Compare with political visionaries, who try to sell you their way of seeing things.
  2. By default, do nothing. When faced with a proposal for radical reform, the community around a collaborative project discusses it. These discussions can last a long time. Then, almost always, the radical reform does not go ahead. This is because, whatever its other flaws, the project in its current form works. Its next version might be much improved, but no one can guarantee that it will work, and when. Reform needs a rock-solid case to go forward. Compare with I-need-to-leave-a-mark-on-my-term.
  3. Focus on infrastructure. Collaborative software projects do not make things, but building blocks that people can build things with. Enabling, remember? The point is not to decide which color is best for people’s web pages, but to write code that allows anyone to easily choose any color for their own page. In the policy world, this means building infrastructure– and infrastructure is hierarchical. The more general, the better. Aqueducts are better than hospitals. Hospitals are better than arts centers. Arts centers are better than exhibitions. Compare with bullshit pet projects of elected representatives (“Let’s make an incubator for social innovation”).
  4. Unglamorous leaders. Narcissistic, flamboyant personalities do not do well in collaborative projects. People’s attention needs to be on building, so attention seekers are a liability. The most respected members of these community are nerdy, reliable people that won’t waste your time. Compare with modern politicians near you.
  5. Avoid controversy. Any successful open source project has lots of controversial proposals for moving forward. But it also has many on which everyone agrees. Controversy is a waste of time, so people go for the low-hanging fruit first, and build the things everyone agrees on first. This builds mutual trust, and might take the project in directions that make the controversy disappear altogether. Compare with politics-as-combat.
  6. Do-ocracy, not stakeholder representation and deliberation. Stakeholder representation has served us well when societies were simple and hierarchical. In those salad days, a dozen people around a table could make decisions, and depend they would be acted upon. This no longer possible. In a collaborative project we don’t discuss what to do. Within the (broad) core values of the project, you can do whatever you want as long as you have the capacity to deliver it. Who does the work calls the shots. No one gets to tell others how they should contribute.  Compare with endless debates and cross-vetoes everywhere.

You get the idea. This how we work when we build online encyclopedias and web server software. Or companies like Edgeryders. Could this be how we work when we build our cities, national parks and energy grids? Could we do that not in the name of an ideology, but simply to build our own happiness, and that of those we love?

Could there be another space to get down to building? A terrain so hyperlocal and fragmented as to be too expensive for narcissistic strongmen and Machiavellian schemers to enter? A move so lateral that it will not even exist in the same space as post-truth politics?

We don’t know, yet. But, in the wake of the dark tide of 2016, we see people in our network asking new questions. Something new, something big is on the move. As always, we will stand by our community, and help as best we can. If you, too, have been waiting for something to get in motion; if you want to be a part of building it, and figuring out where it takes, get in touch. Nadia will be revealing some of our immediate plans at AdaWeek in Paris, on November 22nd (info): if you can’t make it there, get in touch with her or join our mailing list.

[written with Nadia El-Imam]

Brexit: we keep building

In 1941, as Hitler’s troops set fire to the continent, Altiero Spinelli, Ernesto Rossi and Ursula Hirschmann had been confined by the Italian fascist regime to a small town called Ventotene. And they wrote this:

“The dividing line between progressive and reactionary parties no longer follows the formal line of greater or lesser democracy […]; rather the division falls along the line, very new and substantial, that separates the party members into two groups. The first is made up of those who conceive the essential purpose and goal of struggle as the ancient one, that is, the conquest of national political power […]. The second are those who see the creation of a solid international State as the main purpose; they will direct popular forces toward this goal, and, having won national power, will use it first and foremost as an instrument for achieving international unity.”.[2]

Today is a sad day. But it is not the end. In a far worse situation, Spinelli, Rossi and Hirschmann kept working for a free, peaceful, united Europe. So will I, in love, and for the interest of my Italian-Swedish family, my Belgian residency, my Romanian, German, English, Swedish, Scottish, Icelandic and American business partners. Good luck and a strong hug to all of our friends in the United Kingdom.

We keep building. That’s the way.

The invisible city: chronicles of love and defiance in Brussels

(written on March 22nd 2016, day of the Brussels attacks – translated from CheFuturo

Here we go again. This morning’s explosions have plunged Brussels back into the lockdown we already went through in November 2015, after the Bataclan attacks in Paris. The airport is closed. Railway stations have been evacuated. The public transport network is down. Cinemas and museums are closed. The Université Libre de Bruxelles has been evacuated. No one is allowed in or out of schools. The government has declared a state of maximal alertness and asked everyone to stay put.

Since November, we have a name for this state of things: #BrusselsLockdown. It’s not an easy situation to be in. But neither is it desperate. As in November, as always, the images you see on TV are not representative of life in the city. In my neighborhood – between Saint-Gilles and Forest – shops are open. The weather is sunny, so outdoor tables of cafés are popular with my fellow Bruxellese (the photo above is fairly representative of a normal day); they shake their heads and exchange small tales of their life in the times of this new Lockdown.

In November, the city had demonstrated its level-headness and a very Belgian surrealist sense of humour. The police had asked not to share anything about its movements as it raided the city for suspects; as a response to that, we inundated Twitter of cat photos. I was delighted: this was a funny, deeply human way to collaborate without keeping your head down and staying put. I am sure that the same spirit will show up this time around. Already funny-defiant images are showing  up on social media, and the Bruxellese use Twitter to offer hospitality to people who have come for work and got stranded in the city.

The truth is, this city can not yield to fear of terrorism. Not in the sense that we do not want to (though we don’t); not even in the sense that we have a moral duty not to (though we do). We are actually unable to do so, in a very practical way. I am not aware of any other city that, though it is relatively small (1.1 million inhabitants), is so diverse. Walking the streets of Saint-Gilles you meet people from all over the world, and hear the sound of many languages: French, Dutch, English, Arabic, Portuguese, Polish, Italian, Spanish. You can attend Catholic Mass in Portuguese, and driving school in Polish.

Brussels is close to being the intercultural city we want

According to Statistics Belgium, on January 1st 2015 Brussels had 771,000 residents of Belgian nationality, and 398,000 non-Belgian residents. With over one third of the population not holding Belgian citizenship, that’s as diverse as it gets outside of Dubai (which is uncomparable on many levels with any European city). The ten most common nationalities among non-Belgian Bruxellese are: French, Moroccan, Romanian, Italian, Polish, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Bulgarian and Turkish.

These figures underestimate the foreign presence in Brussels, because individuals holding double citizenship are counted as Belgians. It turns out that only 44% of residents was holding Belgian citizenship at birth (source 1, source 2). This means that a mind-boggling 22% of residents are naturalised Belgians. Most naturalised citizens come from Morocco, Turkey, Congo and Guinea. European Union citizens normally don’t bother acquiring Belgian citizenship, as EU magic allows us to enjoy most rights granted to citizens anyway. It is estimated that 25% of residents are muslim.

This is the Brussels I live in. If you only ever hear about it because of EU politics or the recent security problems, it is invisible to you. But that does not make it any less real. Here, yielding to terror and xenophobia means not waving hello to your Romanian or German neighbour; change your favourite grocer (Moroccan) and that café with tables in the sun (Italian). In the home where I leave, we would have to discriminate each other: we are two Frenchmen, a Pole, a Swede and me, an Italian. It’s unthinkable. Brussels cannot go xenophobic: it’s already over the tipping point. It is Europe as Europe could be, and will if we do not lose sight of our common journey.

So, it’s no surrender for us. Tonight we will hold an open house. We’ll have friends from Egypt, America, Italy, Belgium – every one of them a Bruxellese. We will raise our glasses in love and defiance, and drink to the city that makes us brothers and sisters without requiring us to be the same. In time, the Lockdown will be lifted and we’ll take Brussels back, just as we did in November. The people responsible for this tragedy will be arrested and punished, as happened with those responsible for the Bataclan attacks in Paris. This is Brussels, sweetheart. We are not going down. Wherever you are, raise your glass with us.

Photo: sam.romilly on Flickr.com